On Jan. 15, Araya Woldu, co-owner of the Adams Morgan jazz club Cafe Lautrec, pulled out his trump card: He walked into Room 807 at 614 H St. NW, the former home of the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board, and surrendered his bar’s liquor license. “Business is running without food (selling only liquor),” he scrawled on the board’s application for safekeeping.
The unprecedented act of chivalry stunned ABC Board employees. “No one turns himself in!” laughs board employee Flossie Williams. It was a kamikaze mission, after all: According to District law, a bar serving alcoholic beverages must also offer food on its menu. The ABC Board has the right to shut down and to revoke the liquor license of an establishment that fails to comply.
A few weeks after Woldu’s visit downtown, the doors to Cafe Lautrec remained locked on a Friday night. They haven’t opened since. For months, a sign in the bar’s front window stated that the business was closed for renovations.
But Woldu’s statement to the ABC Board offers a much more accurate explanation for the hiatus. “I have [a] major dispute with my partner,” Woldu wrote to ABC Board officials. For almost five years, he now recalls, a battle has been brewing between Woldu and his Eritrean countryman and business partner, Mahari Woldemariam. Full-scale combat has ensued during the past year and a half, and Cafe Lautrec patrons have become refugees in the civil war between its two owners.
“It was almost like tribal warfare,” observes Johne Forges, who tap-danced atop Cafe Lautrec’s bar for nearly 20 years. “Mahari didn’t like Araya’s tribe, and Araya didn’t like Mahari’s.”
Woldu and Woldemariam had grown up with a steady diet of war. Both had seen close to a quarter-million people from their homeland die fighting the three-decade Eritrean war for independence from Ethiopia. (Even though Eritrea gained independence in 1993, the two countries remain in conflict over territory.) In the late ’70s and early ’80s, thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians alike, including both Woldu and Woldemariam, fled East Africa for the United States. Many of them settled in the Washington metropolitan area.
Woldemariam slowly established himself as a heavyweight in D.C.’s rapidly growing Eritrean business community, owning a few of Adams Morgan’s most famous nightspots: Heaven and Hell, Columbia Station, and the Green Island. The two met when Woldu, a frequent customer at the Green Island, struck up a conversation with Woldemariam and suggested going into business together.
Woldu and Woldemariam bought Cafe Lautrec in 1994, after the bar’s previous owner went bankrupt. For much of the past two decades, Cafe Lautrec had been one of the most hopping bars on Adams Morgan’s 18th Street circuit. Between October 1997 and March 1998, I waited tables at Cafe Lautrec every Saturday night. The bar at full swing had undeniable charm. With its exposed brick walls and worn wood floors, the place had more soul than most of the neighborhood’s favored watering holes. Working there was a combination of being the hostess at the liveliest soiree in town and the house mother at a college fraternity party.
From the start, the partners divided everything straight down the middle. They paid $50,000 each and split the company’s 500 shares of stock evenly. They divvied up the workweek in a similar fashion: Woldemariam supervised the bar Mondays through Thursdays; Woldu ran the show Fridays through Sundays.
Patrons and staff witnessed contrasting management styles: Woldemariam, the seasoned nightclub owner, took a hands-on but erratic approach. Some busy evenings, he would jump behind the bar and mix drinks; other nights, he would disappear . Woldu, on the other hand, was more of an overseer. He spent the entire night leaning against the bar, watching the activity surrounding him.
Emily Jane Phifer, the building’s owner, soon recognized that Woldu and Woldemariam were each “running their own version of Cafe Lautrec.” They maintained separate bank accounts for the business. When supplies needed to be bought or bills needed to be paid, they treated the situation like a game of chicken, refusing to budge until one finally surrendered the dough. When Phifer demanded that the two pay up $20,000 of outstanding rent, Woldu was the first to crack.
In 1996, the partnership deteriorated. On weekend nights when Woldu was in charge of the bar, Woldu says, Woldemariam would mingle with the crowd and try to convince Cafe Lautrec patrons that they’d be happier drinking at Green Island or Columbia Station. Woldu claims that Woldemariam also used food and beverages from Cafe Lautrec to supply his other establishments.
Woldemariam denies the accusations. He counters by saying that Woldu was stealing profits from the business by pocketing money at the end of his shift and not reporting it to Woldemariam.
That winter, Woldu and Woldemariam decided to meet at the negotiating table. They approached Eritrean community elders for help. “We call an elder shnagle,” explains Robel Yohannes of the D.C. Eritrean Cultural and Civic Center, “which means ‘mediator.’” If the opposing parties disobey the orders handed down by the elders, Yohannes says, “It’s like disrespecting God.”
Woldu and Woldemariam brought their troubles to a council of elders that included Berhane Tesfaye, a respected Eritrean engineer. “We thought it would be an easy dispute to settle,” explains Tesfaye. Instead, negotiations went around in circles. “There was too much dishonesty,” Tesfaye says. “We had to go into mediation six or seven times.”
In the end, Woldemariam agreed to buy Woldu’s portion of Lautrec for $155,000. “The elders said, ‘To solve this problem one of you must leave the business,’” recalls Woldu. The sale was never consummated for reasons the two men still dispute, however, and tension escalated. “[Woldemariam] would say, ‘I’m going to kill you,’” Woldu remembers. “He was testing me, cursing me in my language.”
Woldemariam recalls that Woldu retaliated with similar threats. “Araya would say, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ What was I supposed to do? I’m a businessperson, not a fighter.”
Around Christmas last year, the battle reached a crescendo. Woldu claims that Woldemariam called the police with a bomb threat to Cafe Lautrec. “It was Saturday night, and they came in with sniffing dogs,” Woldu says. Woldemariam denies the charge.
By winter, Cafe Lautrec was a casualty of war. Piano man Wayne Wilentz, who had played at the bar for years, says that Woldu and Woldemariam started treating Cafe Lautrec like a temporary encampment. Depending on whose night it was, either Woldu or Woldemariam would arrive with a bag of booze, serve it to customers, and then pack up the remaining bottles at the end of the night.
The cook was fired, the kitchen closed, and drinks were now served in paper cups. The stream of customers began to thin. “We were basically playing in a big, empty room,” recalls Wilentz. The spartan accommodations were reminiscent of a poorly funded college party. “It got down to the basics,” Wilentz recalls. “Music and beer.”
Cafe Lautrec’s staff waited for the bomb to fall. “We heard that something was going to happen,” former manager Elizabeth Little recalls. On Saturday, Dec. 18, 1998, Woldemariam showed up in the bar with a bouncer from one of his other establishments. Woldu braced for a physical confrontation. “We ran out,” Little says of most of the staff working that night.
According to Woldu, Woldemariam had come to steal the night’s profits. “I said, ‘This is my shift—leave me alone,’” Woldu recalls telling Woldemariam. Woldemariam headed straight for the cash. “He was behind the bar, trying to take the money.” When Woldu himself reached for the money, “Woldemariam jumped up on the bar and hit me,” Woldu laughs. “[Then] he fell off the bar and onto the floor.”
Woldemariam agrees that they both made a cash grab, but he claims Woldu was the aggressor. “He struck me, pulled me from behind the bar…and threw me to the ground,” Woldemariam insists. The lone waitress left working the crowd divided the pile of money as evenly as she could, gave each owner his half, and then ran.
Woldu did not return to Cafe Lautrec after that evening. He claims Woldemariam locked him out of the bar. Woldemariam says he had a letter hand-delivered to Woldu warning his business partner to stay away.
Four weeks later, Woldu retaliated with his visit to the ABC Board.
When Cafe Lautrec shuttered last February, the battleground moved to D.C. Superior Court, where Woldemariam is suing Woldu for $4 million for destruction of business, gross negligence, defamation of business reputation, unjust enrichment, and assault. In turn, Woldu is suing Woldemariam for $1 million for breach of contract.
“These two men should be brothers,” says Tesfaye with his hand pressed to his heart. “They should help each other….They should aim in the same direction for their community.”
Detente doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. “He’s a gypsy,” Woldemariam growls. “I’m a workman. We cannot get along.”
“He’s very arrogant,” Woldu snaps. “[W]e have nothing in common.”
For Forges, losing Cafe Lautrec is a crushing blow. “I spent my life in Lautrec,” he says as he chokes back tears. “I can’t look at the place. I can’t drive down the street. It just makes me too sad.” CP